Our guest blogger this week is Ruth Weatherall, a lecturer in Not-for-Profit and Social Enterprise Management at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research uses feminist, queer, and ethical perspectives and is broadly concerned with how social justice, particularly related to gender inequality, is achieved in and through community organisations. She is also interested in how academics can write to achieve social justice. Two of her recent articles: ‘Writing the doctoral thesis differently’ (Management Learning) and ‘Even when those struggles are not our own’ (Gender Work and Organization) epitomise these concerns.
By Ruth Weatherall
Writing a thesis can be a daunting task. Where do you even begin? Happily, there are numerous sources offering guidance to aspiring PhDs. These books have promising titles like How to Write a Better Thesis or Writing your Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis Faster: A Proven Map to Success. Such books guarantee to answer key questions about doctoral writing: Do I write in the third person or the first person? What chapters should I include? How do I know if what I’m writing is ‘original’? How do I structure a literature review? What am I even doing here?
In the early stages of my PhD journey (in the field of organisation studies), I was a prolific reader of these books. I absorbed their advice and used it to start mapping my thesis in my mind. But the deeper I got into my fieldwork, the more I started to feel that such advice was constricting. The models offered in the books simply didn’t fit with my research experience. I felt like I was ‘reverse engineering’ my research journey into a neat formula. Importantly, it felt like this ‘formula’ was restricting how I was understanding the social world and the contributions I wanted to make. So I decided to explore how to write my thesis differently.
In my thesis, I wanted to actively embody socially responsible scholarship through my writing. I adopted a non-linear structure that reflected the nature of the research; I wove theoretical and empirical material throughout the thesis; and I wrote in the emotional dimensions of the research process. I wanted to create an affective as well as intellectual connection with my reader. It was an extremely rewarding and even freeing experience for me, my supervisors, my examiners, and for my participants.
What surprised me most about this process was that this desire to ‘write differently’ was actually shared by many others. Often, however, they didn’t know where to start or were concerned that writing differently would impede their academic goals. I decided to write about my experience to encourage other doctoral students (as well as their supervisors and examiners) to take the steps to write their thesis differently (see my article and my video about this).
How else could a thesis be written?
One of the first questions I get asked about writing differently is: ‘What does it actually mean to write the thesis differently?’ This is a good question, and more complex than it might appear. What ‘differently’ means is tied up with what we think a ‘conventional’ thesis looks like. In my field it is conventional to follow a standard structure: Introduction; Literature Review; Methodology; Findings; Discussion; Conclusion and Contributions. It is also conventional to write in a formal and objective style (with maybe a bit of ‘reflexivity’ in the methodology). This style and structure of doctoral writing emphasises objectivity, linearity, and consistency.
These conventions are useful and can be comforting; but they also can be limiting.
The formal and objective style can marginalise the mess, emotion, and feeling of research (all important aspects of human experience and the research experience!). The linear structure prioritises some aspects of research (such as the literature review) over others (such as ethical considerations). Accordingly, writing ‘differently’ is about writing in a way that challenges conventions and helps readers understand parts of the research process or the subject matter in new ways.
‘If I write differently will I still get a job?’ and concerns about the challenges of writing differently are other common questions I get asked by doctoral students. And these are legitimate. I’m not here to tell you that doing something unconventional is always easy. There can be challenges to writing differently: there are pressures to pick certain topics or write conventionally to lay the foundations for a career or to publish in particular journals; supervisors can be discouraging; peers can be unsupportive. But there are also those who are enthusiastic about emerging scholars who want to challenge convention. There are journals, conferences, other doctoral students and academics who welcome this kind of work. Writing differently can open unexpected doors and help you to form new communities.
Once doctoral students feel prepared to engage with writing differently, the main question is: ‘How can I start to write differently?’ I think the process starts by asking some key questions about how and why doctoral students are writing a thesis:
- What are your ethical and political commitments to your research? How could your writing reflect these commitments?
Doctoral writing is often the start of our academic contribution to other scholars and stakeholders in the field. It’s important to consider how we want to contribute to the world through our writing.
- What established ways of writing differently could you draw upon for inspiration?
Storytelling, fictocriticism, feminist, queer, bisexual, dirty, anti-racist, decolonial, autoethnographic, and meat writing are just a few examples of writing differently which are already used in the academic literature.
- Who influences your writing? Who else could/should influence your writing?
Doctoral theses are written within networks of other people: supervisors, peers, participants, support services, reviewers and more. Forming communities of support for writing can be an important part of the writing differently process.
- How could you incorporate writing differently into your thesis?
Writing differently doesn’t always have to involve a radical reimagining of the thesis. It is possible to integrate writing differently in smaller ways. Findings could be written in the form of a story; autoethnographic reflections could be included at the beginning of each chapter; decolonial perspectives of key concepts could weave through the literature review.
Ultimately, my takeaway message about writing differently is that there isn’t (and should not be) a ‘one size fits all’ model of the thesis. It is important to consider when conventions of thesis writing are helpful and which are constricting. There are as many ways to write a thesis as there are research projects and researchers.
So, how could theses be written differently in your discipline?
Weatherall, R. (2019). Writing the doctoral thesis differently. Management Learning, 50(1), 100-113.